war crimes in Ukraine

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Show trial begins in Russia of 25-year-old Iryna Navalna seized in Mariupol and tortured because of her name

Halya Coynash
The ‘irrefutable proof’ against the young woman includes a ‘confession’ almost certainly extracted through torture, her Ukrainian POW stepfather and the fact that she has the same surname as one of the Kremlin’s main political prisoners

Iryna Navalna in court on 23.11.2023 with her lawyer Photo Aleksandra Astakhova, Mediazona

Iryna Navalna in court on 23.11.2023 with her lawyer Photo Aleksandra Astakhova, Mediazona

Russia’s Southern District Military Court has begun yet another trial of a Ukrainian illegally seized in occupied Mariupol, with the same fundamental flaws, overt falsehoods and irregularities as seen on countless other occasions.  This time, however, the victim, 25-year-old Iryna Navalna, may well have been targeted because of the name she shares with one of Russia’s most famous political prisoners.

Russia is violating international law by taking Navalna from occupied Ukraine and ‘trying’ her under Russian legislation.  She is accused of an attempted act of terrorism, under Articles 205 § 2 and 30 § 3 of Russia’s criminal code, as well as of illegal possession of explosives, under Article 222.1 § 3.  It is claimed that she planned to cause an explosion in the building of the occupation Mariupol administration during the fake ‘referendum on joining the Russian Federation’ that Russia staged in late September 2022 to try to justify its invasion and annexation of occupied parts of the Donetsk; Luhansk; Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

Mediazona reports that the first hearing in this trial took place on 23 November, however the indictment was passed to the Southern District Military Court on 9 October 2023, and a number of earlier hearings appear to have been at least scheduled.  During the first hearing on 23 November, Navalna told the court that she denies the charges, and also corrected presiding judge Ilya Nikolaevich Bezgub when the latter read out the claim in the file material that she had been detained on 28 October 2022.  She had, in fact, been detained by the FSB in October, but had been in captivity since 27 September.  Such discrepancies are telling as it is typically during such periods where a person is held in captivity, but not officially detained and without a lawyer, that torture and other illegal methods are applied to extract ‘confessions’.

The prosecution claims that, in protest at what is called the ‘sovereignty’ of Russia’s proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [‘DPR’], Navalna entered into a conspiracy with Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] and agreed to carry out ‘a terrorist act.  As has also become standard in such ‘trials’, the prosecution / FSB seek to add a mercenary motive which, presumably, gels better with their ‘Russian world’ claims and assertion that there was near total support for ‘joining Russia’.  While Navalna is said to have protested Russia’s invasion, she is also claimed to have received 25 thousand UAH from the SBU in August so as to buy a bicycle “for the conspiratorial transportation of the homemade explosive device” and to have agreed that she would receive 100 thousand UAH after carrying out ‘the terrorist act’. 

The prosecution assert that Navalna’s ‘accomplice’ prepared the explosive device and sent it to Mariupol.  He is alleged to have chosen the place of the supposed explosion and date – 27 September 2022.  Navalna’s role was, according to this same indictment, to collect the explosive device, hold it in her apartment and, when necessary, bring it by bicycle to the Prymorsk district administrative body, plant it and, by remote control, detonate it.  She was then, supposed to get to government-controlled Ukrainian territory and “receive financial remuneration”.

The prosecution claims that Navalna brought the explosive device to the ‘polling station’ at the Prymorsk district administration, hid it and went off to get the remote control to detonate it.  The alleged device was supposedly discovered by occupation police, with Navalna soon detained.  This official version does not disclose where she was detained, but does assert that she was found with the remote-control detonator.

In response to questions from presiding judge Bezgub, Navalna explained that she was born in Mariupol and had lived there with her mother and grandmother.  She had graduated from the Pryzovsk State Technology University but had not had time to find work because of the full-scale invasion.

As reported, Iryna’s mother, Oleksandra Smoliar believes that her daughter was seized because of her name, and recalls the treatment that Iryna received when she and her mother first left Mariupol, and the fixation with her name in Russian reports.  It is, in fact, possible that there are other reasons.  She could have been targeted because her stepfather was taken prisoner in May 2022 from the besieged Azovstal Steelworks.  There could also be no real reason.  This would not be the first time that Ukrainians were seized so that the FSB could claim to have ‘thwarted a ‘terrorism plot’.  Iryna changed her name to ‘Navalna’ when she turned 21.  This had nothing to do with Alexei Navalny, with Iryna simply taking her grandfather’s name to please him, since he had only daughters and his name would otherwise not be continued.

Russia systematically blocked any evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, while relentlessly bombing and shelling the city, and the only way of getting out was via occupied Donetsk oblast into Russia.  Oleksandra managed to pay somebody to take her and her daughter on this route, in order to then get back to government-controlled Ukraine through the Baltic Republics and Poland. Both of them needed to undergo Russia’s illegal ‘filtration’, with Iryna Navalna doing this first, on 9 May 2022. She was made to stand, with her face to the wall and her hands raised, while they interrogated her with a pistol at her head. Having seen her surname, one of the Russians asked “Who wants to talk with Navalny’s daughter? Who wants to see her?” They demanded to know if she had friends in Ukraine’s Azov regiment, and what their names were.  She was held by the Russians for two and a half hours, but was eventually released, and allowed to leave for Russia, from where she crossed into Lithuania, then Poland, making her way back to Ukraine.  Her mother got out separately, without major problems, and, after returning to Ukraine, they settled in the Zhytomyr oblast.

Unfortunately, Iryna’s paternal grandmother had remained in Mariupol alone and kept pleading with Iryna to come and visit her.  Despite her mother’s warranted fears that she would be in danger, Iryna went back in August 2022 to help her grandmother. She had, it seems, assumed that, since she had got through once, there would be no problem. She planned to visit for just a few weeks, spend time with her grandmother, collect some things from their apartment, and also try to track down their cats, who had disappeared during the bombing.

Oleksandra has explained that Iryna did reach Mariupol and even found a bike which she used to travel around the devastated city, trying to find the cats and also, seemingly, taking photographs of the bombed buildings.

All contact was lost with her on 27 September. In the evening of that day, the Russian state-controlled RIA Novovsti posted a video on which the young woman was shown providing a ‘confession’ that has been repeated, with very few variations, on several occasions.  The account then was essentially the same as that now presented in the indictment, however it was claimed that Iryna had ‘confessed and repented’.  It is most unlikely that any such ‘confession’ was given without duress and it is telling that the young woman, who now has a lawyer, and is formally detained, denies the charges.

In January, well-known Russian human rights activist Olga Romanova reported that another Ukrainian had been released as part of an exchange and had been able to pass on information about Iryna,  Romanova was dismissive of the charges against her, saying that the story about the ‘remote-control detonator’ had been thrown in to justify seizing somebody who had not been anywhere near the administration building.  There was, Romanova noted drily, “irrefutable proof”, namely: the fact that Iryna Navalna’s stepfather was a Ukrainian defender, now prisoner of war; the ‘confession’ (never mind that it was given under torture) and her surname.

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